Tuesday, July 31, 2007

People from the Weekend

Conferring with the guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Rough Guide) just outside of Haidra.

We found this ram horn, and Kristian was so into taking this photo that he spent the next five minutes getting dust out of his mouth.

Me standing in front of what the guidebooks refer to as "House with troughs," sounds appealing, right? It's right next to the ruins of the Vandal Chapel (although it can easily be mistaken for it, since it's far cooler up close).

Kristian dangling his feet inside the Triumphal Arch. Kristian is wearing a Tunisian farmer's hat.

Jeremy searching for some tunes on top of Jugurtha's Table

Me up on top. The light towards the end of the day was fantastic. I know I've talked before about the "North African Light," but the sky is always blue, and the sunsets are often amazing.

Jeremy and Dan... posing (?) in front of our "cooking grotto."

The guide's grandson.

Another shot of the Guide's grandson with some neighbors.

Jugurtha's Table

This imposing side of Jugurtha's table juts over 300 feet into the air.

Among the ruins on the top. Most of the stone ruins are Byzantine. The largest remnant of Roman occupation is their perfectly-dug cisterns that go fifteen feet down into the rock.

Looking out through a door at the sunset.

The Sun setting over Algeria.

The sole complete structure on top is this white mosque.

Haidra Photos, Part Two

The Mausoleum with Jeremy making the trek. I started calling us Marius's Mules (due to our 40lb bags) and we decided to make it a double-time trek all the way out to the mausoleum.

The south side of the Byzantine Fort. These walls were easily 20-25 feet high.

Inside the fort is a well-preserved Byzantine Chapel which rests against the western wall.

Heading out of the fort back towards Haidra Town.

Haidra Photos, Part One

The Christian Church. You can see by the columns that it was originally a Roman Temple and was later converted into one.

This is one of the numerous gravestones inside the church. The majority are in Latin, but there are also several in Ancient Greek.

The steps of the Capitol. That column is the last surviving fully intact one.

Detailing from the Vandal Church - which was notably cruder in design than the Roman structures. The Vandals came into North Africa in the fifth century and conquered most of Tunisia and Eastern Algeria.

Up close and personal with the Triumphal Arch. The stone around the outside is what's left of a later Byzantine construction project to preserve the structure (although is a decidely less grandiose way).

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Weekend at Haidra and Jugurtha's Table

This weekend, I went off with a group of friends from Amideast - Dan, Jeremy, and Kristian - to the area just south of Le Kef for a more of an adventurous experience. Loaded up with our bags full of camping supplies, we took a 6:00 AM train on Saturday all the way down to the end of the line - a small town called Kalaat Khasbah. After the five-hour journey, we stumbled out of the train with our bags and paid a local guy to take us over to the old Roman ruins of Haidra (sorry for the awful link - there's not many internet resources on these places), which is about 18km from Kalaat Khasbah.

The ruins of Haidra are right next to the modern-day town of Haidra, which has a small main street which feels like some sort of dusty border town - which it actually is, since you're mere kilometers away from Tunisia's more rowdy neighbor, Algeria. There is a decent restaurant in town (you can't miss it, it's right by the small louage station), and we enjoyed some soup, chicken, fresh local vegetables and of course, the ubiquitous side of french fries. After the recharge, we went out to check out the ruins, which are absolutely spectacular and remarkably tourist-free, due to their rather remote nature.

The ruins include a large and well-preserved Byzantine fort, a Vandal Chapel, plus a Triumphal Arch, a large and solitary mausoleum, a Roman temple converted into a Christian Church, and substantial remains of the capitol. We spent about three hours exploring the landscape, talked to the local guardien, and made friends with one of the national guardsmen - there are a lot of National Guard and Army soldiers around the region since you're literally a stone's throw from Algeria. The site itself is wonderfully evocative - it feels very un-touristy and real. There is still some native Tunisian marble on some of the buildings, and you have free reign to explore as you see fit. I'll be posting photos a bit later.

After Haidra, we hopped on a louage a few kilometers down the road, then hitched a ride to Terjouine, which is on the way to Kalaat Es Senam - the village at the base of our ultimate destination - Jugurtha's Table. Terjouine is a good hub for getting around the area - you can even pick up louages straight back to Tunis. We personally ended up hiring a louage to take us right to Kalaat Es Senam to pick up some supplies - especially water, since it's not available on the mountain - and then he took us a bit of the way up. The trick with louage pricing is pretty much the same as everything when I'm getting around places - I talk to people. In smaller towns, there's still a good possibility of getting ripped off, but if you take the time to talk to a few people (and especially if you speak some Classical or Tunisian Arabic), you're assured to find some hospitable people to help you out. For example, the ride we hitched to Terjouine was just from a guy passing through - he helped us find a decent price on a louage once we got into town. The key is also warmth - social interaction is highly prized, and when you take the time to not come off as an arrogant tourist, you'll have a much more authentic experience.

The louage took us right up to the base of Jugurtha's Table, which is a gigantic flat-topped mountain that you can see from all over the countryside. The top is ringed by exceptionally high cliffs with one entrance around the back, which you're obligated to engage in quite the hike to get to. I'd also reccomend bringing along some good walking shoes and long pants - there are a lot of prickly plants around, and it can be pretty painful to brush by a few.

We continued up the hill until we were stopped by two National Guardsmen, who had gotten wind that tourists were going up the mountain. They were nice and took up our backpacks in their SUV for about 100m, before giving us a rather thorough interrogation on what we were up to. We cleared it all up with a phone call to Tunis to clarify what we did there, and they helped us get settled. Foremost, they were concerned with our security - it's an isolated spot and also quite close to the Algerian border, as I've mentioned before. I'm sure they were also making sure we weren't engaged in anything besides just tourism - luckily they didn't search my bags and find my zoom lens!

We then climbed up the main entrance, which is an ancient stairway guarded by an old Byzantine gate. However, the history of the Table dates back at least as far as for who it was named for - the Numidian King Jugurtha, who used this impregnable natural fortress as a base from which to attack the Romans. While any traces of Jugurtha are gone, there's still a lot of history up on top. There's some Byzantine and Roman ruins spread out among the vast top part - which can take over 45 minutes to walk from side to side. There's also a small mosque, very orderly Roman cisterns for catching rainwater, and coolest of all, Troglodyte caves. There's a network that you can explore right by the main entrance. Even today, these serve as an important defense against the elements - the occasionally strong winds, sun-exposed days and cold nights.

We ultimately ended up staying in one of the grottos right by the entrance. There's a guide there who's employed by the tourism ministry, and he's amazingly hospitable. The National Guard insisted on a policeman guarding the entrance to the Table, and the guide helped us put out carpets and cushions in the cave, which turned into a little quasi-harem. We cooked up some soup with the food, pot, and firewood we brought from Tunis, and relaxed and had an amazing night. I'd recommend a sleeping bag even for the summer - I had just brought my lightweight shell that I used in Sierra Leone, and it wasn't quite enough, it was a cold night.

In the morning, we went down to the guide's house and had a great breakfast of fresh milk, eggs, coffee, thick crepes or galettes, and local honey... then the long odyssey home commenced. We decided to take louages all the way back to Tunis. First off, we paid a local guy (who the guide can call), to drive us and our stuff all the way down to the town. Then we took a louage up to the biggest local city, Le Kef (known simply as "Kef"), and then took a three-hour louage straight to Tunis, arriving before 4:00 PM.

I'd say this was the most rewarding trip I've taken so far. The history was amazing, and it helps to get away from the traditionlly tourist places and Tunis itself to see real Tunisia. It is roughing it. If you want to be less adventurous, you can rent a car (I had to explain to several Tunisians why we didn't), but it separates you quite a bit from the people. Kef is also a good staging point for a trip like this, and it allows you to get out and see some absolutely spectacular scenery around the area. If anyone has any specific questions about getting to Jugurtha's Table/Haidra, feel free to shoot me an email at ibolger@gmail.com

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cafe Sidi Said in Hergla

Not to be confused with the Northern Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said....

People Around Sousse

Here are some of the people from my Sousse trip. These are from the wedding, and travels around Sousse.

Quick hand-held shot at a cafe in El Kantaoui. That's Myriam on the left - she did the Yes Program in Orlando, Florida for a year.

Dan chilling in the Ribat.

Myriam at a cafe down by the beach at Sousse. That's President Ben Ali in the background.

I thought it would be a good idea to teach Myriam's family tabletop football.

A quick shot from the wedding. Quite the entourage, right? What happens is that the groom and his entire family drive over to the wife's family's house and pick her up, and then they all come over to the ceremony. They looked exhausted by the time they showed up.

Random AIESEC story. So, this is the Burns family. The one in the middle is Mallory, an AIESEC US member, and she is traveling in Tunisia with her family, so we met up and talked AIESEC over strawberry juice in Sousse.

On a side note, it was 113 degrees F, with a Saharan wind blowing on Tuesday. So, I went home and did nothing, for a few hours, watching Lost, etc. Around 8pm, I stuck my hand out the window, and it felt as cool as could be. I put on a shirt, shorts, and Jeremy and I went out for dinner at Restaurant Chez Nous, which I highly recommend and is right off Ave. Bourguiba. We had swordfish, veal, and some decent chocolate mousse. Then, we went up to the bar on the top of the Hotel Hana, called Jamaica Bar, and had some awful Tunisian beer (Celtia...). It turns out that our definition of cool was actually the low 80s! But it was a change of 30 degrees and felt positively glacial after the intense heat of the past week.

Sousse, El Kantaoui and Hergla

The Ribat in Sousse.

Me on top of the Ribat's tower, overlooking the city.

A view of the Mediterranean from an apartment in the resort town of El Kantaoui.

A traditional bread oven in Hergla. It's very similar to Indian naan - you slap the dough on the inside walls.

A door in Hergla.

Recognize the borrom logo? That's Coca-Cola in Arabic.

Ozomatli at the Roman Amphitheatre in Carthage

I brought a flash drive into work with some of my photos on it - I still have some ones at home I have to work on... internet should be working very soon, inchallah.

Yesterday was a Tunisian National Holiday, so we all took the day off from work and went out to Gammarth for a day on the beach. It was very restorative.

Monday, July 23, 2007

To Sousse and back again

Ok, so the internet is still down at home (and might be for a bit longer), so I thought I'd recap my weekend a bit, in lieu of posting all the photos I took this weekend.

On Friday, I went out to the American Ambassador's house in Sidi Bou Said - which is a gorgeous house overlooking the Meditteranean. There was a private concert for Kantara (check them out on MySpace), along with some great catered food (cocktail meatballs!), and non-Tunisian beer (the local bran is barely serviceable and called "Celtia"). I told the caterers to keep it coming, so I got a very decent meal out of it. The show was great as well, very intimate. Afterwards, I went out in Tunis, which is quickly becoming quite the adventure, if you're up for it. Tunis has a great night scene - the only unfortunate part is that its mostly clubs - and you're bound to meet new people wherever you go. I met a cool new group of Tunisian guys that hopefully I'll be seeing more of.

On Saturday, I hopped on the train and took a two-hour ride down to Sousse. It's down the coast and is a very popular spot for Tunisians and tourists alike during the scorching summer. I stayed with Myriam, an alumni of the Yes Program, and her family at her house. Sousse is a great spot to check out, my only concern was all the tourism... It's full of Germans, Russians, French, and everybody else.

On Saturday night, I went to my first Tunisian wedding... As Myriam put it, it's something everyone does, but nobody really likes to do. The actual ceremony mostly involved ridiculously loud music. The band wasn't exactly stellar, and compensated with an ear drum-shattering turn of the volume knob. We went out for air after about an hour and didn't come back... My advice - invited to a wedding? bring earplugs.

On Sunday, I went around some areas just outside of Sousse, such as El Kantaoui and Hergla. I'd strongly reccomend Hergla - it's a calm fishing village just starting to feel the pangs of development, unlike the overly-developed Kantaoui area. There's a great little cafe called Cafe Sidi Said with decent sandwiches and Turkish coffee overlooking the port.

The highlight of the weekend was the non-tourist element. I loved staying with Myriam and her family - it was a great opportunity to get to know some more Tunisians in an informal setting. Nothing beats spending a few days with a family, experiencing their hospitality, and having some great conversations. Myriam's dad teaches at the Medical college in Sousse, and got his PhD from the University of Bordeaux, so he was a smart and worldly guy - we had some good talks about safeguarding traditional elements of Tunisia in the face of its rapid globalization... something which can appear very difficult to do. He introduced me to a local breakfast called bsisa, which is a powdered grain that you add sugar and water to, stir up, and eat for breakfast. It has some spices in it, and makes a really satisfying breakfast (if you make sure the water is cold). For anyone coming here, I'd reccomend checking it out. If you ask for bsisa moulu at a decent market, you should be able to find it. Add water, and ta-da! We also broke bread and ate some absolutely excellent local olive oil with some harissa (North African chili paste - it's on everything).

After Sousse, I grabbed the train back up to Tunis to go to the Ozomatli concert, which was Sunday night in Carthage. Ozomatli is a West Los Angeles band that has won a few Grammy's and does a great latin/funk/rap/rock thing. They're here on a goodwill tour, and they really got the crowd going last night. It was a fantastic show. They followed it up by a private show here at Amideast this morning for our Access students. Imagine a band like that crammed into our basement lounge!

Anyways, now it's off to relax before the week continues.

Friday, July 20, 2007


So, I'm aware of the problem with the photo, the problem is that I've been sick for the last few days, and the internet has stopped working at my house - so I have to wait until it comes back to upload all of my photos, and to replace the one that isn't working.

Since I've been here, I've had pinkeye, been bumped rather forcefully by a car, and now I'm getting over a nasty illness - probably the flu or a really bad cold. Hopefully, things will look up for me in the health department (and the internet one as well).

On Monday, I went to see Kantara and the Palermo Orchestra play at the Roman Amphitheatre in Carthage... What a show! I'll post some photos later when the internet is back up. Adding in the orchestra and some extra singers really gave the Kantara and Riadh Fehri songs an extra jolt - I was there with my students from the Access program, and while they moaned when they saw the orchestra come out, they were clapping along within a few songs.

Tonight, I'm going to the America Ambassador's residence in Sidi Bou Said for a special private Kantara concert with some people from AIESEC. Tomorrow, if I feel well enough, I'm heading down to Sousse for a day off from the hustle and bustle of Tunis.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Newspaper Clipping...

I found this little gem of a headline while looking through Tunisia's English-Language weekly... It's actually part of the games/jokes page, but I think they should work a bit on their editing.

* Edit - Fixed the image. It should work now!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

What do you Do?

I realized I've spent a lot of my blog talking about the extra things in my experience here, and not a heck of a lot about my actual job. I think the best way is just to give a basic overview of Amideast and a snapshot of a "day in the life."

First off, I work with Amideast Tunisia. Amideast is a large NGO with its headquarters in Washington, DC. The tagline for Amideast is "Bridging Cultures, Building Understanding," which Amideast does through a variety of ways. First off, Amideast is big in educational services and testing. If you want to take the TOEFL, TOEIC, or even exams such as the GRE, you can come to Amideast. In addition, we offer prep services for testing and a large English Language program divided into young and adult learners - with special courses for Business English. We also administer numerous exchange programs, such as the Yes Program, the Learn and Serve Program, and even Fulbright Scholarships. We work closely with the American Embassy on many of these programs and are responsible for all of the logistics and the vast majority of the preparation for the participants. These participants range from high school students to Masters and PhD candidates.

We also engage in special projects and sponsorships. Here in Tunis, we have the Access microscholarship program. The State Department pays for 100 kids to take English classes at Amideast. In addition, we also throw events, such as the BBQ at the Embassy, or the upcoming Kantara and Ozomatli concerts (Ozomatli will perform for the Access students at Amideast on Monday the 23rd in a special concert at Amideast).

Amideast also functions as an American cultural exchange center. We have an American Corner with a library of English-language books and internet access. In addition, we run weekly free English conversations with Amideast teachers. For example, this Friday, I led a 2.5 hour discussion on Israel/Palestine.

On an average day, I get up at 6:45. I rub the sleep out of my eyes, take a quick shower, eat some cereal (I splurge on the good European stuff because the local stuff is all sugar), and take the tram or a taxi with Jeremy to Amideast. We get there about 7:45, and I do final prep for my 8:00 am English class. It's a public class of sixteen students, and they're a great group of kids. We just finished watching Little Miss Sunshine, which they loved. After that, I have a fifteen-minute break and then my Access program class, which is the same level in theory, but actually a bit lower (to put it in perspective, I assign my public class BBC Articles, and my Access kids are watching Independence Day - albeit in English with English subtitles). I go until 12:45, and then take a break and grab lunch. There's fast food sandwich places around (a basic sandwich + fries for under $2), or a few sit-down basic restaurants with pasta, sandwiches, and some grilled meat.

After the morning classes, I work on the internship component. On Friday, I led the American Corner English conversation on Israel/Palestine, and then went off to La Goulette with Kristian for some downtime. Then, we went on the RTCI Radio (State Radio) Friday English program to promote the Monday Kantara concert and Amideast's sponsorship of it with the Country Director, Lee Jennings. I had prepared several quiz questions that Kristian and I read over the air as part of a free ticket giveaway. Let me just say that yes, Tunisians do know who Elvis and Run DMC were.

After, Lee took us out for dinner with two of our Tunisian friends, Anis and Riadh, to the restaurant on the top floor of Hotel La Jetee in La Goulette. It's a Jewish restaurant, so we had some kosher French wine (the only way to get non-Tunisian wine here), and ate some Tunisian Jewish specialties. I had a stew with navy beans, spinach, and beef, while Kristian was far more adventurous. He ended up eating a sliced-up cow's undercarriage in a stew - which he found out about after several bites.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Wu-Tang Clan?

Today, Jeremy and I took a petit taxi to work in the morning. We were discussing what type of music to show our different students when I mentioned that I was upset that they didn't like my Bobby Digital in Stereo CD. Bobby Digital, for the uninitiated, is a great old hip-hop album by a member of the Wu-Tang clan named Rza - he functioned as the producer and is arguably the best member of the group. Anyways, the taxi driver, a man in his early thirties, instantly perked up and remarked in French, "Rza? Wu-Tang Clan? They're my favorite rap group!"

We then spent the last five minutes of the ride rattling off the different members, talking about their various solo efforts, and picking favorites. He was a big fan of Ol' Dirty Bastard, but I stuck to my guns on Ghostface Killah, although we both agreed Cappadonna's side work (although he was more of a hanger-on) was pretty mediocre. The cab driver also went on about how he didn't like modern commercial American hip-hop.

Little situations like this do a good job of reinforcing how much Western culture has penetrated here. While the majority of the listeners on Radio Mosaique tune in for Justin Timberlake and Kelly Clarkson or Shakira, there's also a sizable group of people who are getting into slightly more esoteric (at least for here) music and movies. In addition to the French culture (which is less apparent here than I thought), such as sixteen-year old girl in my class who just loves Emile Zola, there's a lot of people who set themselves apart by liking punk rock or even the Beatles.

This is especially visible among the young students in some of my classes. The kids who are in the public, not the Access classes, are reasonably affluent and often go to French schools in Tunis. They often have family in France, Italy, Spain, or Germany, and some even consider themselves more Western than Tunisian. This generation as a whole is very much stuck betweens different worlds. Here, they're growing up with satellite TV, the internet, and all of the Western media they can consume at dirt-cheap prices - you can buy a pirated DVD here for around $2.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sweating it out in the Hammam

On Saturday, Jeremy and I went over to Hammam Warda for our first Turkish bath here. Otherwise known as Hammams, they're still relatively popular in North Africa - quite a few of my friends in Morocco went on a regular basis or on special occasions.

Hammams are especially popular on the Friday, the holy day. Cleaning oneself is an important ritual conducted before prayer, and I'd frequently see old men in Morocco leaving hammams in crisp white robes before heading off to their prayers. Here, it's mostly guys with gym bags who head there after work or early in the morning with friends. Many of the hammams are co-ed, and allow men in the morning and evening, and women all afternoon.

The modus operandi for a hammam is as follows: first off, you go into a steam room. There's a pool of very warm water to soak in, and you take your time and sweat it out. In our case, there was an old guy singing some traditional songs who just happened to be in there at the same time, so we got a very atmospheric experience. After that, you go into the cleaning room. Jeremy and I opted for the massage/cleaning. Basically, it's an oldish and sweaty Tunisian guy who gives you a quick massage and then scrubs your skin with an abrasive pad. Afterwards, they put on soap and shampoo and wash you down (all of this is done in a bathing suit - you clean your, ahem, privities in a private stall). Then, you dry yourself and go out and change and relax in the main room. You can drink tea or buy soft drinks and just kind of lounge around, roman-style as long as you want. It's also a great way to meet some locals.

I know there's a conception of "bathhouses" in America, and admittedly, there are establishments that are for other purposes - they mostly are in the medina and cater to older, European clients - but the experience at a true neighborhood Hammam is very PG. I'd suggest asking the locals where they go - that's what we did at our new neighborhood cafe we've been stopping by - it's a great experience and for us, it might even become a weekly one.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Performance

This was a lot of fun to photograph - I took close to 300 photos in all. The hardest was getting the ballet dancers - with the light the way it was, I had to put the ISO up quite high and turn on image stabilization to even get steady and clear photos.

Music and Solidarity at El Jem

Last night, a group of us took a two-hour train over to El Jem, a small Tunisian city, to watch the Orchestra and Ballet of the Vienna Opera. The concert was situated in the Roman amphitheatre of El Jem - the third-largest amphitheatre behind Rome and Capua. There were also two soloists - a soprano and a tenor.

The whole event was quite the spectacle - the minister of culture was there, along with other ministers and ambassadors. We managed to walk right onto the floor seating, reserved for dignitaries, and get some very close seats (the other option was the cold and hard stone benches of the nosebleed seats). (We just acted like we were supposed to be there.) It was a good show, however I wasn't a huge fan of the opera - they were all more traditional Austrian songs. The real draw was the setting - they had placed candles all over the amphitheatre, constructed a stage, and to top it off, the weather was perfect.

One of the most beautiful things here is the natural light. For instance, the sky in this photo really was that blue.